The epithelial layer occupies a strategic important location between an organisms’ interior and exterior environment. Although as such it forms a physical barrier between both environments, it became clear that the role of the epithelium extends far beyond this rather passive role. Through specialized receptors and other more general mechanisms, the epithelial layer is not only able to sense changes in its environment but also to actively respond to these changes. These responses allow the epithelium to contribute to wound and tissue repair, to the defense against micro-organisms, and to the control and regulation of the locale immune response. In this review, we focus on signals acting on epithelium from the exterior environment, how these signals are processed and identify research challenges.